Pastor Tom Sorenson
May 12, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I need to ask you a question. Do any of you know how folks expressed themselves in the days before people had things with bumpers that you could put a bumper sticker on? Did they embroider messages on the seat of their pants? Or brand them into the north end of a southbound horse? Given the way we use the bumpers of our cars these days, one has to wonder. Sometimes it seems that if a thought canít be reduced to a bumper sticker we arenít interested in it. Some people whose bumpers Iíve seen reduce their feelings even about something as important and mysterious as eternal life to a bumper sticker. A few that I remember go like this: "Where will you spend eternity?", with graphics suggesting heaven and hell as the only alternatives. And: "Jesus--Donít leave earth without him," suggesting much the same thing while tossing a Christian exclusivist theme for good measure. And more ominously: "If you think there is no hell, youíd better be right," with brightly colored flames as a border to drive home the point.
For these folks, and indeed for much of Christianity throughout its history, eternal life as been only about what becomes of us after we die. Eternal life means, and meant, the life we continue to live for all eternity after we leave this life. To this way of thinking the life we live here and now has meaning primarily as a laboratory, where we are tested to see if we merit a blissful eternity in heaven with God or an eternity of torment in a fiery hell ruled by Satan and cut off from all hope of salvation. Eternal life in this view is what happens in the future. Our mortal life here on earth determines where we will spend eternity, but it is not itself part of eternity. Eternity starts later, after we die.
Well, I donít know about you, but Iíve got a problem with that way of looking at it. Actually Iíve got several problems with it, but there is one in particular that I want to focus on here this morning. Now we all know the importance of our Christian faith has for our hope of life after this life. That Godís love for us extends beyond the grave and lasts forever is a central conviction of our faith. I have that confidence, I trust that you have that confidence, and I know how important our confidence in eternal life is in giving us strength and courage in the face of our mortality. That being said, however, I donít think the Christian faith is exclusively focused on what happens to us after we die. I think Jesusí major concern was with the lives of the people to whom he ministered, and with our lives, in this world, here and now. I think a proper understanding of the term "eternal life" includes the understanding that eternal life is something that is available to us here and now as well as in the great beyond after we pass away. I think we can get some insight into this understanding of eternal life from certain aspects of the two Scripture passages we heard this morning.
First there is the story of Jesusí ascension into heaven from the very beginning of Acts. After he had said a few parting words to the disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus, we are told, "was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight." The disciples stare up into the heavens, apparently looking for him up there. Whereupon two angels appear to them and say: "Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." Now for me, that bit about Jesus coming in the say way, i.e., on a cloud from heaven, is troublesome. Maybe Iíll preach on that some day, this being one of those Scripture passages in the lectionary that comes up every year; but not today. Today I want to look at the other things the angels said or rather, at the question they asked: "Men of Galilee why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" Now clearly the angels werenít asking that question because they sought information. They were making a point by asking the question. The point, it seems to me is: If you seek to follow Jesus, to stay in his presence and have him with you, you donít do it by standing here looking up to heaven. Well, OK. Where else is there to look? At things here on earth of course. Once the risen Christ has gone from their immediate consciousness, the disciples are told here to turn their attention to the matters of this world and to leave heaven to itself. Scripture calls us here to look for the life of discipleship here in this world, to concern ourselves with following Christ here and now. Itís not that we forget about heaven; rather, heaven is just not to be the sole center of our attention. Tend to the life of faith here, and heaven will take care of itself.
This message is, I think, even clearer in this morningís reading from the Gospel of John. Now, this passage has a lot of confusing language about "glorifying" and about those whom the Father has given to Christ being his and ours and so on. All of that is worth paying attention to, if a bit difficult to unravel. Today, however, I want to focus on what I think is an even more striking passage in this reading. Jesus says that God gave given him authority over all people "to give eternal life to all whom you have given [me]." He came, in other words, to give us eternal life. Then he tells us what eternal life is. He says: "And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." In other words, the Gospel tells us that eternal life consists of "knowing" God and Jesus Christ, that is, knowing God in and through Jesus Christ. The reference is in the present tense, that "they may know you," not "that they will know you hereafter." The Gospel of John is pretty consistent in his insistence on eternal life being life here and now. At John 5:24, for example, we read: "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has entered eternal life...." Not will enter eternal life, but has entered eternal life. For the believer eternal life is already happening. Itís not some future phenomenon that we can experience only after death.
Ok, so itís here and now. But what is it? Well, Johnís Gospel tells us that eternal life is "knowing" God. Whatever does that mean? To us moderns, by which I mean people whose understanding of the what truth is and how we know what truth is has been determined or at least strongly colored by the rationalism of the Enlightenment (and that is who we are, whether weíre aware of it or not), knowledge is a head thing. Knowledge is a cognitive activity, something we do with our minds. To know something is to know facts about it, to be able to describe it, analyze it, mentally take it apart to see what makes it tick and then put it back together again. Trust me, thatís not what the author of the Gospel of John meant here.
Youíve probably heard the phrase "know in the Biblical sense" used to mean "have sexual relations with." A Hebrew word translated into English as "to know" is used that way in some places in Hebrew Scripture. John didnít mean it that way either; but I mention this meaning as a way of getting into the fact that in Scripture "to know" means something different from our common, rationalistic understanding of that term. In Scripture to know something, or better to know someone, is to be in intimate relationship with that person. Thatís how it gets to refer to sexual relations. But intimacy is not primarily about sex. It is about close, loving, mutually supportive, life giving relationship. This kind of knowledge is not primarily a head thing. Itís a heart thing. In this sense to know God in Jesus Christ is to live in that kind of relationship with God in Christ, to take Christ into your heart, to live in loving relationship with the God we see in and through Christ. Jesus does not say that such knowledge is the way to eternal life. He says that it is eternal life. Knowing God does not earn us eternal life after we die, rather, in knowing God in an intimate way we live the eternal life here and now.
OK, you may be saying, but how does that kind of life, a life lived in loving relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ, get to be "eternal." Doesnít eternal have to do with time, indeed, unending time? To call the kind of life youíre describing eternal sounds like a non sequitur. Itís like calling an apple a Cadillac. The two things just donít go together, or so it may seem. I know it seemed that way to me for a long time while I was trying to figure out what to say in this sermon.
I think the reason we donít understand how a life lived knowing God in Christ, in the sense having of an intimate relationship with God, the sense of taking Christ into our hearts, is eternal life is that we misunderstand what eternal means. Put another way, we misunderstand because our concept of God is too small. Time as we know it is a characteristic of creation. It is a property of the universe, which exists in time. It had a beginning in time. Science tells us that, as does Scripture. It will probably have an end in time, although we know less about that. The point is that time applies to creation, and that the category time does not apply to God. When we say God is eternal, that God is from everlasting to everlasting to use an old phrase for this idea, we are using human words and concepts, that is, words and concepts taken from our experience of creation, and trying to describe God with them. We have to do that. We have no other way. Yet when we apply these human concepts to God we always fall short of the mark. In this case, God does not exist through time, God is beyond time. Time does not apply to God. God is not temporal any more than God is three dimensional. Godís eternity is not living through time without end, it is living beyond time, in a realm where our creaturely understanding of time has no meaning.
Thatís what eternal life is. It is not life lived in the four dimensions of created being that just never comes to an end. It is life lived in the realm of God where time is of no concern because time does not exist. And we can know eternal life in that sense, if only through a glass darkly, here and now by living in intimate relationship with God and Jesus Christ. Knowing the love of God in this life transports us beyond the cares of this life, including our cares about time and mortality. Knowing the love of God in the broader Biblical sense weíre using here connects us with that life beyond all created limitations of time and space that is the life of God. In knowing God in Jesus Christ we have eternal life here and now because through that knowledge, that intimate relationship, we connect to and participate in Godís eternal life, Godís life that transcends the limitations of our life on earth, here and now. Participation in that Divine life is our gift through Jesus Christ. Praise the Lord!
Eternal life is Christís gift to us, but how do we gain that intimate relationship with God that is eternal life? Most of the time our life here and now seems anything but eternal, anything but beyond our earthly cares and woes. How do we make the eternal life that Christ offers us our own here and now? Well, there are lots of ways to do it-private prayer and Bible study are important and helpful. But for me, the main way we do it is through our communal worship life together. This is what worship is all about, making, renewing, and maintaining that intimate connection with the Holy that is eternal life. Worship is one of the primary ways, for me indeed it is the primary way, that we participate in Godís eternal life here and now. In our prayer, our song, our hearing the Word proclaimed and preached, our praise and thanksgiving, and, again for me at least, most of all in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we connect with God. When our worship is done well, we draw strength and hope from that connection that helps us get through the coming week, that helps us face what we must face, and even lets us do it with joy and thanksgiving. Thatís why we worship. It isnít about something God needs from us, itís about something we need from God. Itís about participating in eternal life here and now, about receiving eternal life as a free gift from God now, in this life. Our deaths do not cut off that gift. Far from it. We live in hope that we will experience Godís eternal life of love even more intimately then than we do now. But in the face of a tradition that has for centuries misunderstood eternal life as having to do only with rewards and punishments after death, let us celebrate the discovery that eternal life, understood as an intimate, loving relationship with the Lord God in and through Jesus Christ, is ours now, here, today, in this life as well as the next.
Let us pray: Loving God, we thank you for eternal life. We thank you for the word of Scripture that teaches us that eternal life can be ours here and now if we accept Jesusí invitation to live in loving relationship with you as we know you through him. Help us to live into eternal life by being faithful in our prayer, our study of Scripture, and our communal worship. Grant us that we may know the joy of living close to you now and forever more. We pray in the name of Jesus, who came that we might know you and thereby gain eternal life. Amen.